Sometimes a Pizza is Just a Pizza: A Plea For Sanity

Last weekend I went to Crocodile Lounge, a wonderfully unpretentious bar with awesome beer and those “Spot the Difference” titty games. The usual.

What makes Croc Lounge different, an adventure, a one-stop-shop-excess-atorium, is the free pizza with every beer. This is not news to most Manhattanites (except my former 22Leroy bandmate, Matt), yet many don’t take advantage of this gem. With each beer, priced at $5 to $6, you get a little ticket not unlike those that are expurgated from Skee-ball machines and the like (oh yeah, there’s skee-ball, by the by). You take this ticket through an archway to an adjacent counter with sweaty dudes and a pizza oven. You deposit said ticket in one receptacle and a tip in another. You are handed a hot, personal pizza.

Let’s be clear about one thing here: the pizza at Crocodile lounge is just okay. It’s not going to (nor has it) burned up the pizza world. In fact, the only thing it’s burning is your drunken mouth. Keith McNally isn’t shaking in his cardigan for Pulino and Mattieu Palombino probably doesn’t even know it exists. The crust doesn’t have the tangy bite of a long-growing yeast culture, the sauce is just sort of there and I’m positive that I heard someone say, “It tastes like Ellio’s!”

My first reaction was to scoff and think, “Plebian.”  Then I took a bite. The crust is crispy, thin, has a nice snap when you fold it. The sauce is industrial-sweet but not “I just came from a freezer to feed some 6 year-olds” sweet. The mozz is… shrug, mozz. I guess what I’m trying to say is: I see the connection. I don’t necessarily agree, because these pizzas are made by hand and I’m usually always drunk when I’m eating them, but yeah, Ellio’s. Whatever makes you happy, lady.

But really, I think that this is the crux of my point. Presented with life’s little limitations and such, isn’t this all anyone should ever be able to ask for in food (or sex)? To be happy with what you have in front of you at any given moment. You can wish for more, but a good dose of reality should always be in mind. If you check out my yelp reviews, I tend to hit a lot of places in Midtown, just by virtue of working there. Nothing, save for restaurants that I can’t afford, ever rates above a “Meh” or at best, “This place is awesome for Midtown. You should try it. With booze.” (Bonchon may be the exception to this, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet.) Maui Taco always comes to mind as a place that is a technical disaster when compared to Dos Toros Taqueria in Union Square or any number of taco trucks in and around the Boroughs, but it’s just so goddamn satisfying. There’s a happy hour drink special and… well my yelp review says it best:

I feel like a lot of the people here are asking a lot from this place. Let’s take a quick look at what it offers:

  • Generic but relatively high quality beer for reasonable to damn-near-cheap prices depending on when you go.
  • Tacos of the soft and hard variety.

From what I saw, it never really touted itself as an authentic Mexican joint (how could you take a man with dreadlocks and a Hawaiian shirt seriously anyway?) and I didn’t expect it. I got exactly what I wanted: meats of all variety covered with cheese, sour cream, and salsa–bland as it may have been–and nestled in a soft corn tortilla, accompanied with cheese. That is exactly what I wanted. 

Long story short, if I wanted really authentic Mexican I would head to Hempstead or Spanish Harlem. Last night I just wanted to get drunk after work and eat tacos. And that is the American dream, is it not?

I still stand by this review. It IS the American dream. It’s Hunter S. Thompson buying 5-cent hamburgers in a big white convertible. It’s a shoddy product that people allow themselves to enjoy simply because it’s in front of them to shove in into their grotesque maws. These pizzas are definitely not a shoddy product. They’re not as good as they can be, but they’re as good as they can be for free. When you want pizza, when you want tacos, when you’re drinking beer, what you’re really asking for is protein and dough with cheese. Glorious, melty, delicious cheese and meat. I’m fucking ecstatic that drunk food is being elevated everywhere, but I’m also perfectly happy with what’s in front of me as long as I’m not thinking about what it could be.

Are we going to freemium this conversation? Are we going to say that the $.13 it takes to make the pizza is worth it if people are spending more on beer? Are people buying more beer due to the pizza? No. Are they coming to Croc lounge, a bar that has things every other bar in the city has–except with pizza–just for the pizza? Fuckin’ A they are. I support this. I support good pizza more, but I support okay pizza for free just as much.

That said, there’s a lot of Okay pizza all over the city. 2 Brother’s Pizza on St. Mark’s–the place with the $.99 slice– is actually pretty good (and they’ve opened another one uptown). It’s not Neapolitan or DOC or anything like that, it’s a classic New York slice. And it is a good example of such. That said, the only pizza I’ve ever really had in the city that I was unhappy with was the crap in Penn Station (Rosa’s is okay, but don’t go for the stuff from the newsstand. I don’t wanna talk about it).

I’d like to take this opportunity to comment on the DOC pizza in the US situation. If I understand correctly, the fad has passed (bacon’s holding on for a little while longer though); nonetheless, I’ve super-psyched about the whole upsurge in good pizza places. When New York Magazine ran that article on artisanal pizzerias in last year’s Cheap Eats Issue, I made a mental note to try all of them (I’ve been to like…2, I suck). And even though Anthony Mangieri sorta scares the shit out of me, I couldn’t have been more excited about what he was doing; I even learned how to use a brick oven while visiting family in Italy.

But tastes are a varied thing and I don’t think that it’s appropriate to judge this pizza on the same plane as the New York slice—the pizza that I, as a New Yorker (with accent) have grown up with. We don’t have the same food culture in America that they do in Italy. For instance, in Sicily I walked into a paneficio for a loaf of bread, and walked out with a little pizza with tomatoes, capers, anchovies and cheese that is traditionally folded in quarters and eaten sort of like a sandwich. In Florence I used to get a couple inches of pie by the meter from the coffee shop to eat standing on the bus. Americans don’t treat pizza the same way; it’s a destination dinner or a “Fuck it, I don’t want to cook” dinner (admittedly, it’s like that in Italy as well). It is a part of our cultural fabric in a way diametrically opposed from the Italian, “Hey, it’s 2pm, let’s grab a pizza and a beer and walk around for a while then stop on every corner to finish our conversation before continuing on down the street in tight jeans and weird haircuts.” It’s treated as a snack, big small, meal, whathaveyou.

It’s also not universally good. I’ve not only had some of the worst pizza of my life in Italy, I’ve been lambasted for saying so. There’s good and bad pizza all over the world, from LA to the Italian urban centers that cater to Americans that don’t know any better. You can argue that it’s taken for granted, like dry, disappointing hamburgers in America, and you can likewise argue that because the ingredients are seemingly fresher (Italy having always been a farm-to-table culture, even if they are moving away from it), that the food is just always better. There are a lot of people in this country that will argue that whoever says that is full of shit. And I agree.

What is amazing about the food (and by extension pizza) scene right now is that you can go total locavore (mmmmm, buzzword!) or “Fuck it, fly that bitch in and let’s have the greatest meal ever.” It’s like eating in Esca (dude goes fishing two miles from my backyard) or La Bernardin (Ripert being the king of ridiculous product). Pizzaioli are getting the best ingredients that they can find, be it local or flown into the states in the bags of the guys from DiPalo, and putting it in their ovens and your stomach.

In the case of the former, what is the difference between the pie I got from the “brick oven” place down the block from my apartment in Florence (Rossopomodoro… to be avoided, by the way) and the pies that I ate at Motorino in the East Village? The pie from Motorino rocked. The crust was perfect—crispy, only just singed, salty and tangy and the bedrock for the alici (white anchovies) that could have been filleted and marinated in my dad’s kitchen they were so Goddamned beautifully executed. I would argue that location and provenance are not mutually exclusive, that something in America can be better than it is in its own homeland (see also: European McDonalds).

Can we say the same about New York-style pizza elsewhere? Since it is an aberration of the Neapolitan pizza that I’ve just described, probably not, but it has grown up—matured into it’s own form. The crust is thicker, not bland, but certainly less assertive than its southern Italian cousin. In all its forms (including Buffalo Chicken) it is a reflection of a constantly assimilating immigrant culture, a comfort food of the highest order (especially if childhood memories are dusted with flour-coated kitchens and sauce-stained tile). It is appreciated for what it is, for what it speaks to.

For this reason, we cannot judge Crocodile Lounge’s pizza in the same way that we judge pies at Kestè (actually, that one is just okay despite the owner’s pizzaioli pedigree), just as you wouldn’t judge a slider from White Castle in the same way that you’d slobber at the burger from Minetta Tavern. Both are a deeply satisfying in their own way and in their own place and time. In this way, Croc Lounge’s pizza will always hit the spot.


About chris

One Response to Sometimes a Pizza is Just a Pizza: A Plea For Sanity

  1. Pingback: Hell Yeah, Pizza! The Real Sicilian Slice « Aright, Doom.

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